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INQUIRER helps debug Win4Lin Pro

First INQpressions Couldn't log-on to virtual Win2k machine on Linux
Sat Sep 30 2006, 11:28

Product: Win4Lin Pro 2.7
Company: Win4Lin Inc
Price: $69.99-$89.99 Web Site:

AFTER DUMPING WinXP for Linux for my daily work, I decided to install "Win4lin Pro" as my windows testbed under Linux. However, I soon found myself unable to Log-in to my virtual Win2k machine.

The text mode Windows 2000 installer, from start to finish

Sometimes, just sometimes, I feel I have a curse in life: I'm always the one to hit obscure software bugs, broken web page links, brain-dead webmasters, and inconsistent, botched corporate strategies. But no, it's not this geek scribbler: making the software world less buggy is what we strive for here at INQ central.

Here you will see how the INQ has made Win4Lin Pro better: it all started when I downloaded the latest "release" version of "Win4Lin Pro" -version 2.7- from the web site. The software promises the user the ability to install and run Windows 2000 and Windows XP inside Linux, and, unlike the previous "Win4lin 9x" versions of the software, doing so without the need to recompile your linux kernel.

To my displeasure, I started with the wrong feet: since I only had at hand two XP OEM "restore CDs" provided with my two notebook PCs - part of the "Microsoft Preloads Tax"- I tried using a Win2k CD delivered under the Vole's "Passport Advantage" programme. These original Microsoft CDs include Windows 2000 both in Workstation and Advanced Server flavours on the same CD, that is, with each version in its own sub-directory.

Soon I'd found that the Win4Lin Pro install script does not like those CDs. In fact, the installer is very finicky about which Windows 2000 and XP CDs it accepts.

So I grumblingly obtained another original Win2K CD - this time the retail edition. I decided to avoid WinXP due to the added "eye candy" bloat that wouldn't certain benefit me a single bit in a virtual machine configuration. And it worked this time. Win4Lin Pro takes a while to copy files from the original CD to the linux partition, but once that is done, the fun begins.

Installing Win2k on Win4Lin Pro - GUI part of the setup

Win4lin Pro starts a "virtual machine" and boots from the bootable install CD, on a window inside linux. Since I only ran Windows applications using WINE in the past, this first experience with a virtual machine booting and running the 32-bit Win2K kernel inside was quite impressive and gave me very good memories of my 32-bit IBM OS/2 days with its "Win-OS/2" subsystem and its famous "virtual DOS machine". And notice I'm talking about IBM's 32-bit one after they parted ways with the Vole, not the brain-dead "penalty box" in 16-bit Microsoft OS/2.

Twelve minutes later, the Win2k GUI installer is done

Back to Win4Lin Pro: I started the Win2K text mode installation on September 21th at around 5:10am. By 5:25 the text based part of Microsoft's Win2K installer was complete and the program informed me it had to "reboot". Of course, the PC didn't had to reboot, just the virtual machine. A screen flicker later the virtual machine restarted and the graphical part of the Win2K installer came to life. About twelve minutes later, by 5:36am the installation was complete and here I was, playing with a full "virtual" Windows 2000 system inside my beloved Linux OS. It took me a couple hours to load the Win2k virtual machine with the essential pieces of software that make life bearable: the Netpersec freeware Ethernet monitor/graph, the Winrar archiver, Acrobat Reader 4.05 - in my opinion the 'last known good' non-bloated version, Winamp the ultimate audio subsystem test, etcetera.

The good news
If you have the right CD, Win2K installs and runs just fine under Win4Lin Pro. The speed of the system is quite impressive. From clicking on the Win4Lin Pro to the "starting up" screen, it took 16 seconds. The Win2K login screen appeared at the 26 seconds mark. This on a Gateway 7422 with its Mobile Athlon 64 3400+ processor and the stock hard drive and 1GB of PC2700 SDRAM.

The bad news
I quickly found that USB devices are not supported by Win4Lin Pro. In other words, if you plan to install Win4Lin PRO to use a given hardware device that does not have Linux drivers, you're currently out of luck. However, it all comes down to complexity of the virtualization vis. speed, I guess.

The Catch-22
After spending a great deal of time installing every Windows program that I originally had in my WinXP partition into the Win4Lin virtual machine -I didn't encounter a single problem, it should be noted - I decided to close the Win4Lin Pro session and continue my testing later.

After playing with Win2k, a reboot of the virtual machine

Upon restart, Win2K SP4 greeted me with the usual log-in dialogue: "press Ctrl-Alt-Del to log-in". Well, gee, I soon found out that Ctrl-Alt-Del is intercepted by the Gnome desktop in my blag Linux, so it displays its "shutdown, reboot, cancel" dialogue. In other words, the Ctrl-Alt-Del never got to Win4Lin PRO.

So I went to the Win4Lin forums and wrote and lengthy tirade about the problem, concluding with: "It would be very nice if Win4Lin had some sort of "lock-in" key combination (I think Alt-Esc is the best, but maybe I'm biased) that gave the Win4Lin window exclusive access to the keyboard (to enter keystrokes like C-A-D, etc), and then be able to "unlock" the focus again using the same keystroke (say Alt-Esc)."

Surprise: Ctrl-Alt-Del brings the Gnome desktop log-out menu
Which means that there's no way the C-A-D keystroke will get to the Win4lin Pro window...
Catch-22, I've heard of it...

Soon I found a reply from Win4Lin's staff: "Yes, I understand what you are saying. There is no lock-in feature right now. But, the good news is that most Linux desktops can be configured to not intercept Ctrl+Alt+Delete. If you are running KDE, try the control centre. If you are using GNOME, try the System->Preferences menu (depending on your distribution)".

I also asked for help in the blag Forums, and tried every suggestion given, but nothing seemed to make the Ctrl-Alt-Del behaviour go away. Applications->system settings->keyboard only allowed changing the keyboard layout to another language. Applications->preferences->keyboard didn't seem to offer anything to change Ctrl-Alt-Del and finally Applications->Preferences->Keyboard-Shortcuts showed "log-out" with no keystroke/shortcut associated to it. Finally, the suggestion to try editing the "ctrlaltdel:" line in /etc/inittab only seemed to affect the keystroke behaviour before Gnome kicked in.

So I wrote another cry for help on the Win4Lin forums: "why can't the Win4Lin Pro window have an option accessible from some pop-up menu or hidden hot key that would allow sending certain keystrokes -C-A-D for instance - like the VNC client does? Since the VNC source code is available, it'd be a matter of looking on how they do things..."

Soon I'd found a reply directly from Leonardo Reiter, Vice President of product development and CTO at Win4Lin, Inc.: "I agree that it's a very good feature have implemented. In fact, I am willing to have it implemented relatively soon. Would you be willing to give test feedback on an upcoming 3.5 release, perhaps as early as mid-late next week? For historical purposes, the hot-key to pop-up will be Shift-F12, not F8 like VNC does. But basically initially the menu will allow you to do a few things, including sending F12, Ctrl+Alt+Delete, Alt+F4, and possibly Alt-tab, which are combinations that Linux desktops like to trap but are used commonly in Windows". He ended with "Sorry for the inconvenience".

I was... how could I describe it... enchanted, entranced, excited, gratified, joyous, jubilant, overjoyed, pleasantly surprised, thrilled.

A company that listens to customer feedback and acts accordingly

By Thursday, I had another surprise: they actually implemented this much needed feature that this scribbler suggested, in order to avoid the "Catch-22" of being unable to log-in to your own Windows virtual machine. It's part of Build 63914 of the Win4Lin Pro 3.5 test version available on the company's ftp site. The release notes of this build reads: "Added pop-up menu which can be triggered with the Shift+F12 hotkey; the pop-up provides functions such as sending special key events to the virtual machine, invoking the help center, etc."

Oh, the injustice of the closed-source world. There won't be a notice anywhere in Win4Lin Pro with my name in bold typeface next to the implemented suggestion. But hey, a responsive software company is enough news for a day. So stay tuned, there will be a "second INQpressions" report with the latest 3.5 test version soon.?

See Also
Comparing VMWare and Win4Lin
Time Machine: (Four years ago) VMWare vs. Win4lin 9x
Virtualization in the Stone Age: Nick Petreley tests Win4Lin 9x v2.0 beta with Windows 98, six years ago
VMWare alliance targets desktop virtualization
INQ helps debug VOIP app



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